The fear of God: Talking with Jerry Bridges

Jerry Bridges is the author of The Pursuit of Holiness, The Practice of Godliness, True Fellowship, Trusting God, Transforming Grace and The Joy of Fearing God. He has a close association with the ministry of The Navigators and lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.

The Psalmist complains that we have an all-too-human view of God (Ps 50:21).To what extent are wrong ideas of God at the root of our spiritual problems?

I think that our basic problem is that we try to scale God down to our size. And because we think God is like us, we do not reverence Him. As a result, we’re not scared to disobey Him. This means that for most people in our society today, God is at best peripheral and at worst irrelevant to their lives.

Do you mean that God has become peripheral even in the lives of Christians?

Yes. I think it’s true of Christians as well. Many believers think that by going to Church on a Sunday morning they somehow pay their dues to God for the coming week. Once they’ve got that out of the way, they figure that they can do as they please for the rest of the time.

What does it mean to put God at the centre of your life as opposed to having Him on the periphery?

I believe that Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 10:31 is one of the best explanations that you will find of it. There the Apostle Paul says: “Therefore, whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God”. If you combine that idea with the very first petition of the Lord’s Prayer “Hallowed be your name” (Matt 6:9), you arrive at the concept that having God at the centre of your life means that you exist to please God by honoring Him. All your thoughts and deeds have to be directed towards that end. There is no idea here that you can live for yourself.

Christians today need to accept the challenge of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which reminds us that our great aim in life is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. Obviously, if the aim of our lives is to think, feel and act in a way that recognizes God’s absolute authority over us, then He will be at the centre of our lives. Of course, none of us can attain this position in an absolute sense because no Christian has God at the centre of his life every waking moment. There are times when we’re driven by other motives. But living for God’s glory should be our constant goal.

To what extent do you think that a lack of the knowledge of God lies at the root of all our problems in the Christian life? Is it a wrong emphasis to focus on practical issues to the exclusion of theology?

Yes, I have no doubt that it’s absolutely the wrong emphasis. In fact, many churches in America are not focusing on God at all; instead, they’re focusing on people’s felt needs: how to feel better about oneself, how to raise your children, how to have a happy marriage, how to manage your finances well. Typical church flyers have a disturbingly familiar ring to them: they all focus on man. The message is “Come to XYZ church and meet new friends, get acquainted with people in your neighbourhood and satisfy all your social needs”. There’s usually nothing there whatsoever about God. I’ve got one at home and God is completely missing from it. It’s all about satisfying a person’s felt needs.

What impression dos that create?

Well, first of all, it gives the impression that the Church exists for us and not for God. And then, following on from that, it suggests that we have no obligation to God.

Of course, if we give people the idea that God is only useful to meet our needs, then we shouldn’t be surprised if they have no sense of respect or reverence for God. Sadly, I think Paul’s statement in Romans 3:18: “There is no fear of God before their eyes” applies not only to unbelievers today but also, to some degree, to people in the church as well. By the way, I’m not suggesting that people who don’t fear God are true believers, but they are in the church. And I’m talking about evangelical churches, not just main line ones.

If Christianity is essentially a personal relationship with God, why should believers fear Him? Isn’t God safe to be around if you are a Christian?

It all depends. It might be safe to be around a nuclear reactor in some circumstances; but it can be dangerous in others. I don’t think we should ever be afraid of God in the sense of being afraid of something wild and unpredictable like a tornado or of a sadistic bully who terrorizes his victims. It’s not that kind of fear. God is not irrational or malicious. In fact, the passage which I often use to teach the fear of God is Exodus 14:31. There we read that “when the people saw what God had done to the army of Egypt, they feared the Lord and put their trust in Him”. So to fear God is to be in awe of God. It means to know God as the sovereign, all-powerful One.

Perhaps a good working-definition of the fear of God is something like this: to truly fear God means to be in awe of God’s being and character as well as in awe of what He has done for us in Christ. When you put these two ideas together, you have an absolutely sovereign Creator of the universe who punishes those who resist Him, and yet loves us and sends His Son to die in our place. Surely that’s good reason to fear or reverence Him.

You’ve used the word ‘awe’. Awe is a rather flexible word these days. People talk about a film that’s ‘awesome’. Surfboard riders talk about waves in the same way. What exactly do you mean by it?

First, I’d like to point out that we usually profane the word when we use it today. We’ve got to get back to its real meaning. To be ‘in awe’ of someone means to venerate, honour and esteem them. I’ve got a book of synonyms at home. I looked up the word ‘awe’ to see what sort of synonyms and antonyms it had. Interestingly, what caught my attention was one of its antonyms—‘to take for granted’. Tragically, I think this phrase describes large sections of the Christian community today. Many Christians now take God for granted. Is it any wonder that we’re no longer in awe of Him?

So, to get back to your question—yes, I get irritated when I hear the word ‘awe’ used in profane ways. It makes me righteously annoyed every time I hear people use the word perversely. For instance, people will say: ‘That was an awesome ice-cream ’, or something like that. When you think about it, that’s a terrible misuse of the word.

You’ve said that the word ‘fear’ can mean ‘reverence’, ‘venerate’ or ‘admire’. Does the word also suggest ‘cringing’ or ‘servility’? Do these ideas play any role at all in the biblical idea of fearing God?

I think that ‘cringing’ and ‘servility‖ are foreign concepts to the biblical idea of fearing God. I think that what the Bible means when it talks about fearing God is that we don’t take God for granted. You must treat God with absolute respect because He is a God who judges sin.

Let me give you an illustration. I know a Christian worker who divorced his wife so that he could chase another woman. Obviously, he had to resign from his organisation. When confronted with his sin, he said: “I know it’s wrong, but God will forgive me!” Clearly, this man has no fear or respect for God. He was not afraid of God’s discipline in his life.

The apostle Peter talks about Christians having a “Father who judges each man’s work impartially”, and as a result, “living our lives as strangers here in reverent fear” (1 Pet 1:17). I liken this to my boyhood days when growing up. My dad was very loving, but he wouldn’t take any nonsense or disobedience from me. So I had a very healthy fear of him that kept me in line. But it certainly wasn’t a servile fear. We had some great times together. Although I had a very healthy respect for my dad, I never cringed or felt that he was going to hurt me or anything like that.

You speak of the fear of God as though it’s one of the hallmarks of the Christian life. But Paul does not mention it as one of the fruits of the Spirit in the believer’s life in Galatians 5. How do you explain that?

It’s really not difficult to explain. For example, in Jeremiah 32:38-42, God says: “I will give them singleness of heart … so that they will always fear Me for their own good … I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from Me”. So I’d say that anyone who is a genuine believer, who has been born again by the Spirit of God, has at least the seed of this biblical fear of God within him. Therefore, in that sense, the fear that the Lord places in the believer’s heart is very much the fruit of the Spirit. Like all the other clusters there in Galatians 5, fruit has to be cultivated. The same holds true for the fear of God. It has to be cultivated as well.

So is it possible, like Jesus, to delight in fear the Lord?

Absolutely. That’s precisely what Isaiah says about Jesus in chapter 11, verse 3: “He will delight in the fear of the Lord”. There Isaiah is speaking of Jesus’ humanity; it’s a Messianic passage. And Isaiah tells us that as the Spirit of God came down on Him, so He perfectly feared the Lord. We should do the same if we are followers of Jesus.

Why is it that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom? Why not the love of God?

Because I believe that the fear of the Lord is the most fundamental attitude that we can have toward God. In fact, in my own prayer life I have several Bible verses that I pray over frequently. I have them in what I call ‘priority-order‘. The most important is marked #1, the second #2, and so forth. The one that comes at the top of the list is Psalm 86: 11: “Give me an undivided heart that I may fear Your Name”. Having a deep reverence for God is absolutely fundamental as I read my Bible. I mean, is it ever possible to overestimate the importance of God? I think the question answers itself. Our responsibility is to remain continually in awe of God. We must reverence Him for who He is and what He has done for us in Christ.

Once you have established your respect or reverence for God, then your next priority is to grasp the love of God. That’s number two in my mind.

When Martin Luther expounds the Ten Commandments in his Small Catechism, he begins each answer by saying: “This commandment means that we must fear and love God by …”. Is Luther saying the same thing—that fearing God comes before loving Him?

Okay … let me put it this way. One in four times where the term “fear the Lord” is used in the Bible, it’s connected with our obedience. But it’s also true that our obedience is motivated by love for God. As Jesus says “He who has My commands and keeps them, he it is who loves Me” (John 14:21). So I would say that it’s almost a redundant expression. Of course, I hesitate to say that. I have difficulties sorting that one out myself. But Deuteronomy 10:12 links fear, love and obedience together. Moses says to the Israelites: “What does the Lord ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to serve the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul?” He brings those three terms—to fear God, to love Him and to serve Him all together in the one passage. And the way the terms are used, it’s almost as though they are interchangeable expressions.

To what extent is our failure to fear God the real problem with our society?

Well, because we don’t fear God we have no respect for who He is. That means that we have no respect for His law. People don’t care whether they’ve offended Him. The average person thinks that God should just forgive sin—and that’s assuming that the person believes in sin in the first place. For example, it’s quite common for sympathy cards in America to carry the message: “Your loved one has gone to a better place”. The assumption is that when you die you go to a better place regardless of how you lived. People think like this because they have no fear of the consequences; they no longer believe in the judgement of God. But if God can cast the wicked into hell, then there’s a valid place for fear as we traditionally use the word. If God is real and He hates sin, then it’s only common sense to fear the Lord. But, of course, for the person who trusts in the mercy and righteousness of Christ for his salvation, this fear is not a servile or cringing one.

Do you think, therefore, that the state of morality and crime in a community is directly related to the people’s fear of God?

Well, absolutely! Do you remember the first time that Abraham uses the term “fear of the Lord”? It was when he lied about his wife, Sarah. Abimelech, the king of Gerar, asked him why he did it. Abraham said: “I said to myself, there’s no fear of God in this place, so they will take my wife and kill me!” (Genesis 20:11) It was obvious to Abraham that a fear of the Lord is the most powerful restraint against sin.

Paul expresses the same idea in Romans 3. From verse 10 he sets out the tragic nature of man’s problem: no one seeks God; all have turned away; and no one does good. Then finally, he says: “There is no fear of God before their eyes”. Paul’s conclusion is that as you work your way up the chain of sin you finally come to the root cause—that people have no fear of God.

Again, this is also linked to today’s idea that there’s no such thing as a judgement. I’d say that’s pretty much an almost universal belief now. People think that the idea of a judgement is simply a religious device to keep us under the control of the church. They hate the thought that they’re accountable to God. That’s why the sympathy cards say: “Your friend has gone to a better place”.

Is the fear of God a proper motive to which we can appeal in stimulating Christian growth and ministry?

Oh, absolutely! Again, to me it’s primary and fundamental. We must start with a reverence for who God is. This is why I strongly urge people to read through the whole Bible every year. We need to be constantly saturating our minds in God. You can’t think about God in the Old Testament without being struck by His awesome sovereignty and holiness. Think, for example, of how He crushes the Assyrian army in Isaiah 37. He strikes 185,000 of them dead in one night without firing a shot. Now that’s awesome. The more you read of biblical history the more you think, “Wow, this God plays for keeps”. We need to cultivate this mindset because this is reality. This is how the real world works; God visits His judgement upon His enemies sooner or later.

Christians need to know this deep in their souls. Even though we know that our sins are forgiven through Jesus Christ and that we are perfectly righteous in Him, we must never forget that we cannot fool around with God. He treats sin seriously. A man I once knew said: “I know that having lustful thoughts for women is wrong, but God will forgive me”. This man hadn’t realized what it means to fear God.

How does the fear of God relate to ministry?

I think the fear of God is closely connected with the glory of God. And, to me, all ministry should have as its focal point the glory of God. Now the Gospel is focused on the glory of God through His saving acts. God’s plan for the nations is to bless them with salvation for the glory of His Name. This plan is embodied in God’s promise to Abraham: “Through your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Here God speaks of the blessing of salvation that comes to the nations from the Gospel. But the focus on God’s glory is found in a passage like Psalm 22:27 which says, “All the ends of the earth will return to the LORD, and all the families of the earth will bow down before Him”. The ultimate aim of this salvation is to bring honour to God.

If you look at the Great Commission, you’ll see the same thing. Here Jesus says: “All authority is given to Me, so go and disciple the nations”. Basically, what He is saying is this: “Therefore, go and bring people under my authority so that they may be blessed with salvation”. To evangelize people and disciple them so that they receive salvation is to bring people under the authority of Jesus Christ. In other words, unless a person fears the Lord, how can he possibly lead another to salvation when salvation itself can only be received by placing oneself under the authority of Jesus Christ? That means fearing the Lord, surely.

Many Christians struggle with besetting sin. Can knowledge of the fear of God get them out of the cycle of repetitive habits of sin?

Well, first of all, I would say that the thing that’s going to help a person get out of a cycle of repetitive sin is the knowledge that their sin has been dealt with by Christ on the cross. They need to understand that God no longer counts their sin against them. In fact, in Psalm 130:3-4 the Psalmist says, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sin, then who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You that You may be feared.” It’s certainly a terrifying thought to think that God may keep an accurate record of our sins. Because He is holy He could do that. But because He’s also gracious He freely forgives us through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. And when I see that God has forgiven my sin through the death and resurrection of Christ, then this puts me in awe of Him. I think it’s important not to separate those two components that I started with: The fear of who God is and the awe of what He has done for us in Christ. We cannot separate those two.

If, for example, in the area of besetting sin, we just focused on the first one, then the person tends to see God as his judge and he is reduced to a servile fear. But if he sees that God is not only his judge but also his saviour, then his fear is not really servile; it’s a fear that has love intermingled with it. You cannot deal with the power of sin as long as you are faced with just the guilt of it. So when a person comes to me to ask for help with besetting sin, the first thing I try to do is to help them see that God has already dealt with their guilt. This frees them up from it so they no longer see God as their judge. Instead, they see Him as their heavenly Father who is for them. Then they realize that God is there to help and empower them to deal with it.

Only then do I begin talking about the practical steps that they can take such as memorizing Scripture, prayer and setting up a system of personal accountability.

Calvin speaks of the dread and wonder which believers experience in God’s presence in both Old and New Testaments. Should we experience the same thing? Is this a paradigm for true Christian experience in every age of the church?

I believe it is. I think it’s a paradigm of the Christian life throughout the Scriptures. We see this more vividly in some people than in others. For example, this attitude is very prominent in Moses after God appears to him in Midian. We also see it in Joshua, Gideon, Ezekiel and Isaiah. But we also recognize it in Peter, Paul and John. So it’s definitely a paradigm for the believer. But today, sadly, we don’t see this type of spirituality very often. I would say that a Christian who genuinely exhibits the fear of God is in a small minority, even in the church.

Isn’t it rather extraordinary that only 15 years ago when the Toronto blessing was popular laughter was identified as the sign of the Spirit’s presence? Now you’re saying fear? What’s going on here?

My own view is that the Christian community has lost any notion of the fear of God.

Is that because we have lost God?

I think that’s certainly true. Christians today are living in a world today where God is intellectually remote. But we are also spiritually remote from God because we are not studying His Word, nor are we spending enough time devoted purely to God. So it shouldn’t surprise us that very few Christians seem to have an appreciation for the overwhelming majesty of God.

If fear is such an essential part of our spiritual experience, how do we cultivate that ‘awestruck’ attitude that Bible says we ought to have?

Well, I would suggest three things. First of all, I think we should pray like the Psalmist who asked the Lord, “Give me an undivided heart that I may fear Your Name” (Ps 86:11) and then claim the promise of Jeremiah 32:40 where God says, “I will inspire them to fear Me”. Say to the Lord, “O God, You have put this fear in my heart. Please cause it to grow.” Ask the Lord to help you to grow in reverence.

Second, I think that we need to read the Old Testament frequently if we want to grow in the fear of God. Even if we can’t participate firsthand in God’s great acts of power like the parting of the Red Sea, we can still re-live them by sharing in the original story. They took place in time and space. They were real events and we can share in them.

Third, another profitable course would be to read some great books on the nature of God. Here I am thinking of A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of GOD and The Idea of the Holy. Another good book is The Holiness of God by RC Sproul. Sproul’s great strength is that he has devoted his whole ministry to emphasizing the holiness and awesomeness of God.

Have those particular books had a profound effect on your life?

Yes, although the book that has had the most impact on my life and which I would love to recommend is one that I can’t because it’s so difficult to read. I’m referring to The Existence & Attributes of God by the Puritan, Stephen Charnock. Unfortunately, no one is reading this sort of stuff today. You really have to be a die-hard fan of the Puritans to digest it. His chapter on the holiness of God, for instance, is a hundred pages. And this book has left a greater impact on me than almost any other. I guess the other book that has helped me to grow in the fear of God is A.W. Pink’s book, The Sovereignty of God.These are the sort of books that drive people to their knees.

Is it difficult to grow in the fear and love of God?

It’s not easy because it involves struggle and determination. Sadly, many Christians don’t seem to be ready for it because they are not interested in hard work. They’re just not motivated. Most Christians have a baseline for their Christianity which includes regular attendance at worship services and avoidance of any scandalous sins and being a nice, decent sort of’ people. All they want is stay above the baseline. However, they’re not interested or willing to pay the price to grow. They’re more interested in the football and the golf and the how their shares are doing in the market—these kinds of things.

Go to your average, after-service fellowship and listen for the topics of conversation: it’s the weather, it’s sports, it’s business, it’s how your children are doing; these kinds of things.

One day I decided I would see what would happen if I asked questions about a man’s spiritual growth. So I said to him, “What’s God been teaching you lately?” And he looked at me with a shocked expression. He said, “No one’s asked me that question before!” He simply didn’t know how to answer it. So we have this baseline and we’re just not interested in going beyond it.

What sort of positive effects does the fear of God have on the life of a believer?

First of all, it will increase the person’s reverence for God; it causes the person to realize something of the majesty and transcendence of God. Further, when you couple that with the love of God in Christ for us this will result in gratefulness to God. When you are reverent and grateful, you’ll be asking the question, “OK, Lord, what do You want me to do?”

I think we see this in the Isaiah 6 passage; the vision that Isaiah saw in the Temple. There he sees the holiness of God. He hears the seraphim crying out, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” He is overcome by the majesty of God. Then he becomes aware of his sinfulness. After that he experiences forgiveness. The angel says to him, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for”. Then he hears God say, “Whom shall I send and who will go for Us?”. Isaiah doesn’t say, “Lord, go where and do what?” He just says, “ Here am I, send me!”

I think that’s the approach we have to take. I think that today we want to get people into some form of ministry so quickly that we don’t take people through the steps of who God is and what He’s done for them in Christ. So consequently, when we make the appeal to serve God in any way—whether it’s in being a steward of the congregational finances or teaching a Sunday school class or caring for homeless people, most Christians are not up to it because they’re lacking this deep-rooted motivation.

Again, we take the cross for granted instead of being absolutely amazed by it. I mean, we sing the hymn: “Amazing love … and can it be … that Thou my God shouldst die for me …” and we’re moved by it emotionally. But it stops there. The thought of the cross doesn’t inspire us to lay down our lives in humble service. So I think that pastors, teachers, and other Christian leaders ought to be presenting the high and holy God who has loved us in His Son. And then, as a consequence of that, people will respond.